.Europe’s debt to Islam, Part 1: the “debt” asserted – The European Perspective

Europe’s debt to Islam, Part 1: the “debt” asserted

Arabic Translation of Euclid’s Elements.
Photograph: copyright the trustees of the Chester Beatty Library

Part 2 >

Sylvain Gouguenheim is a professor of medieval history at the l’École Normale Supérieure de Lyon in France. In 2008 he published a book with the title Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel (Aristotle on Mont Saint-Michel). The book was about Islam’s contribution to European culture in the Middle Ages. A few decades ago a book like this might have been read mostly by academic experts who then would have discussed it in academic journals. However, we are now living in different times and the book caused a scandal in France, and later also in Germany where it was also published. It was discussed and reviewed in newspapers like Le Monde and Libération in France, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Germany and in the New York Times in America.

What was about the book that upset so many people? It was the statement by Gouguenheim that Europe built its own civilization itself and that the ancient culture of the Greeks is at the roots of this civilization.

One can understand why this mild-sounding point-of-view could be so scandalous if one realizes how much it was—and still is—against the mainstream opinion. The following quotation, from Alain de Libera, a specialist in medieval philosophy, is characteristic for the currently dominant view of both academics and of the public:

The fact that the “Arabs” played a decisive role in the creation of Europe’s cultural identity is beyond debate and denial—it was simply so. (p. 3  in the German language version of Gouguenheim’s book. I’ll use this version throughout this article series. Translations by the author of this article)

Reason and rationality are often seen as typically Western. Not so, says de Libera:

Rationality, which is often called, improperly, “Western”, came like the light, from the East (p. 113).

Professor emeritus Zeinab Abdel-Aziz from the Al-Azhar University in Cairo says the same:

The whole european civilization was built without any doubt with the help of Islam [ … ] Only through Arab thinkers did Europe learn rationalism (p. 5).

Politicians also weigh in on this praise of Islam as the source of Europe’s culture. For example, the British Conservative politician Boris Johnson, ex-Mayor of London, ex-Foreign Secretary of UK, wrote this in an article reviewing the book Submission by Michel Houellebecq:

It was the intellectual flowering of the Cordoba caliphate [in Spain in the Middle Ages] that helped to protect and transmit ancient Greek texts and eventually to propel the European Renaissance.

How were Muslims able to play such a decisive role in creating European culture?

During the flourishing of the Roman Empire Greek philosophical and other texts were not translated to Latin; there was no need for that, as members of the Roman elite who were interested in those works were able to read Greek. However, after the demise of the Roman Empire in the West the number of people who could read Greek decreased substantially. As a result, books in Greek were not needed, they were not copied, and many of them were presumably lost.

Thus, when, starting in the the 8th and 9th centuries, Europeans became interested in classical Greek writings again, there was a need for the classical Greek texts. Some were available in some European cities, e.g. in Rome, in the library of the Pope. Many others were available in the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) and also in the previously Christian Middle East, by this time ruled by Muslims. 

Many of these Greek texts were translated into Arabic in Muslim areas during the Abbasid Caliphate, between the 9th and 10th centuries:

almost all non-literary and non-historical secular Greek books that were available throughout the Eastern Byzantine Empire and the Near East were translated to Arabic (Dimitri Gutas: Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, 1998, p. 1.)

This large scale translation movement, which, using the words of Boris Johnson, “preserved” these books, was supported by the Abbasid caliphs and by Muslim elites.

The translated books were then copied and found their way into libraries in the Muslim world, among them also in Spain, large parts of which were under Muslim rule from 711 A.D. on.

But a re-conquest (reconquista) of these territories by Christian rulers soon started, and by the end of the 11th century almost half of Spain was in Christian hands again—including the city of Toledo, which was re-conquered in 1085. It was there that Christian scholars discovered Arabic language translations of many classic Greek authors, among them Aristotle. Some of these Christians learned Arabic to be able to translate these texts into Latin, which was the lingua franca used among scholars at the time. The major figure of this translation movement was Gerard of Cremona. In 1165 A.D., 80 years after Toledo came under Christian rule again, Gerard started publishing translations of many of these Arabic-language versions of Greek works into Latin.

This was a knowledge transfer from the Greeks to the Western Europeans which supposedly wouldn’t have been possible without Muslims “preserving” the Greek classics  by translating them into Arabic. The assumption is that these translations were then used to quick-start the development of European natural philosophy, which then ultimately led to the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. 

Another way Islam was supposed to decisively contribute to the creation of European civilization was more subtle: it was by enriching European ideas and thinking, for example by interpreting and commenting the writings of classical Greek philosophers, in particular Aristotle. These comments were also translated and helped European scholars to gain new insights.

This knowledge transfer via Muslim mediation and the enrichment by Islamic thinking are often put in a moral or financial terminology: people talk about a debt that Europe supposedly owes Islam. For example, Yale-educated Saudi philosopher Nayef R.F. Al-Rodhan writes:

The debt to Muslim scholars is, for the most part, unacknowledged by European scholars who drew upon their work.

Alasdair Soussi insists in an article in Irish Times that it is

Time to acknowledge debt science in West owes to Islamic world

The idea of a “debt” that Europe owes to Islam should be propagated more widely among school children, according to Martin Wainwright from The Guardian newspaper, whose article titled Our debt to Islam, has this subtitle:

Teaching children how Muslim sages saved European philosophy could bridge a modern culture gap

Many western political leaders support the “debt” idea. Boris Johnson, in the above mentioned article wants to remind us of it in the article’s subtitle:

We should counter anti-Islamic scare-mongering by recalling our debt to the culture of Muslim Spain.

The following is an excerpt from US President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009:

As a student of history, I also know civilisation’s debt to Islam. It was Islam—at places like Al-Azhar University—that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment … And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.

And finally, the Prince of Wales said this at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies:

Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, if there is much misunderstanding in the West about the nature of Islam, there is also much ignorance about the debt our own culture and civilisation owe to the Islamic world.


Many people in academia, politics and media state that Islamic civilization played a “decisive” role in establishing European cultural identity.

A “debt” to Islam is supposed to exist in at least two ways. First, the Islamic civilization “preserved” classical Greek knowledge via Arabic translations of Greek works. This made a transfer of this knowledge to Europe possible (I call this the “knowledge transfer debt”). Second, ideas developed by Muslim scholars and scientists were supposed to have enriched European intellectual life (I call this the “enrichment debt”).

Gouguenheim doesn’t agree that Islam played a “decisive” role in establishing European cultural identity (at least not in the way as it is meant by people like de Libera). He claims that Europe itself played that decisive role. Part 2 will describe how he justifies this claim.

Later Parts of this article series investigate the validity of the two “debts” in detail. In this, I roughly rely on Gouguenheim’s arguments, but include other sources as well, when it seems appropriate.

Part 2 >